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Sociologist's Book Looks at "Oral Democracy"

January 24, 2019

Associate Professor of Sociology Paromita Sanyal has co-authored a new book on civic and political discussion within what has been recognized as the largest deliberative institution in human history.

“Oral Democracy” (Cambridge University Press, 2019) is the result of extensive studies of citizens' voices in in India's gram sabhas.

Gram sabhas are village assemblies in India where citizens discuss local government and development and make needs-based plans for their communities. Under the country’s constitution, decisions made by the gram sabha cannot be annulled by any other government body.

Using a detailed analysis of gram sabha deliberations in over two hundred villages bordering four states, Sanyal and co-author Vijayendra Rao, lead economist in the World Bank’s Development Research Group, developed a full picture of participatory grassroots democracy in South India.

“This valuable book documents the diverse voices from the ground that form the body and soul of everyday democracy in action,” said Ashwini Deshpande of the Delhi School of Economics. “It serves as a crucial reminder to urban readers that the real crucible of Indian democracy is not the quinquennial Election Day, but the messy, contested terrain of gram sabhas, where citizens ask questions, demand answers, and help make decision-making responsive and reflexive."

"The challenges of electoral democracy are becoming increasingly visible worldwide, and the legitimacy of some elections has come under critical scrutiny,” Sanyal said. “This has led to a revival of the idea of direct democracy – giving power directly to groups of people to make collective decisions. Gram sabhas facilitate what we have termed ‘oral democracy,’ a political system powered by citizens’ voices, where direct verbal engagement is the modality and narratives are the main currency.”

Sanyal, who earned her Ph.D. at Harvard and her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in her native India, joined the Florida State University faculty in 2016 after faculty positions at Cornell and Wesleyan universities. From 2007 to 2011 she was a research consultant at the World Bank.

She is also the author of “Credit to Capabilities: A Sociological Study of Microcredit Groups in India” (Cambridge, 2014).

“Oral Democracy” is available in Open Access at this link and will be available as a print copy in February 2019.